Measures to contain COVID-19 are increasing demand for smuggling and subjecting migrants to even riskier conditions.
Travel and movement restrictions do not deter people from fleeing conflict, violence, and dangerous and inhumane conditions – they merely drive more people to irregular means.
Across the world, over 60 000 mobility restrictions to contain COVID-19 have been imposed. Travel constraints, border closures, and reduced travel modes severely disrupted smuggling markets. After an initial slowdown though, smugglers are reviving and adapting to meet changing needs.
In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, significant reductions in air and sea travel and border closures temporarily slowed many smuggling corridors. Land and sea smuggling has subsequently increased under even more perilous conditions. Migrant numbers are rising across many common and new migration corridors, including in Africa. The desire for migration combined with a lack of regular pathways is bolstering demand for human smugglers and is expected to increase.
Migrants continue to travel through key African land migration routes, including across the Sahel and southwards from the Horn of Africa to South Africa. In March, 64 Ethiopian migrants were found dead – probably from asphyxia – inside the back of a shipping container on a lorry. After an initial easing of migrant flows, smugglers in Libya are now seeing new passengers from neighboring countries and those further afield including Eritrea, Ghana, Mali, and Nigeria.
Border closures and movement restrictions have made reaching destinations more difficult. This in turn has made people more reliant on smugglers who are looking for new methods of passage and monitoring border management to evade controls. These new pathways come at even higher financial costs and greater personal safety risks because journeys are more difficult to complete.
Smugglers are exploring and promoting alternative – and often more dangerous – land and sea crossings. They are using smaller and less seaworthy boats and taking riskier routes through rivers or at sea. Migrants crossing borders by foot are using increasingly remote paths to avoid detection. Public transport suspensions have also diminished regular road travel options and pushed people towards riskier options including concealing in cargo vehicles.
Smuggling prices are already increasing. Those who can’t afford the higher costs will embark on perilous journeys on their own or be more vulnerable to traffickers posing as smugglers. Tens of thousands of migrants are stranded across Africa due to border closures. Many are trapped in dangerous situations and are extra vulnerable to smugglers and traffickers. In some cases, smugglers have abandoned migrants mid-route due to border closures.
Over 2 000 East African migrants are known to be trapped in Djibouti after smugglers abandoned them trying to reach the Arabian Peninsula in search of work. Thousands of migrants – mostly West African – have been found at the Niger-Libya and Niger-Algeria border after having been abandoned by smugglers.
In Zimbabwe, smugglers have been dumping migrants from Zambia, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, and Mozambique who are trying to reach South Africa after failing to circumvent tightened border controls.
Among these abandoned migrants are pregnant women, children, and other vulnerable people. They are ineligible to receive support from local governments and many lack the documents and resources to return home. Restrictive measures disproportionately affect women and other vulnerable migrants. This places them at heightened risk for crime, violence, extortion, and trafficking.
Many governments have shut down rescue missions and asylum processes and are refusing entry regardless of the human costs. Barriers to movement are both state-imposed and community-led. COVID-19 has intensified stigma towards migrants and this is pushing it to become even more clandestine, and making migrants more vulnerable.
COVID-19 is likely to increase the determination to migrate. The geopolitical and socioeconomic conditions – ‘push factors’ – that drive migration have increased in all regions across Africa due to the pandemic and are projected to worsen in the medium and long term. Migrants are not deterred even from reaching destination countries that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19.
Safe and legal avenues for migrants are the most robust and successful migration management tools available and hold the most potential to reduce irregular movement. While travel restrictions are necessary to stop the spread of COVID-19, countries must recognize that they are not fool-proof and carry consequences of their own. Continental, regional and country responses should factor smuggling and criminal markets into their responses.
Countries that have suspended or reduced access to asylum processes should be compelled to restore them immediately. Ensuring safe, regular passage to vulnerable migrants is fundamental to controlling COVID-19 and upholding migrant and refugee rights. This can be achieved in a protected and controlled manner that includes access to health screenings and healthcare.
Countries with high numbers of irregular migrants should consider schemes that bring people out of the shadows. Untracked movements are a direct threat to this public health crisis. All responses should include migrants, regardless of their status. Migrants need access to health screenings and care and should be included in relief packages. Governments must recognise the damage that stigma does to controlling the pandemic and put measures in place to combat xenophobia.
As African countries and the African Union work to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19, they should restore regular migration pathways for vulnerable people that include health and security screenings and are responsive to smuggling and trafficking threats.